What is ‘human factors’?

We’re all human. We all make mistakes and forget things. Our attention span is limited. We overlook key information when making decisions. We get distracted, bored, tired or preoccupied. We mishear and misunderstand.

These are as much a part of human life as breathing and sleeping. Human factors is concerned with understanding and managing the capabilities and limitations of people. It is the application of scientific knowledge and principles – as well as lessons learned from previous incidents and operational experience – to optimise health, safety, well-being, overall system performance and reliability.

Clearly, we can’t change the human condition, but we can design activities, plant, processes and procedures in such a way that takes into account human imperfections.

“Everyone can make errors no matter how well trained and motivated they are. Sometimes we are ‘set up’ by the system to fail. The challenge is to develop error-tolerant systems and to prevent errors from occurring” (HSE, 1999, p.18).

Human factors addresses what people are being asked to do (the Work and its characteristics), who is doing it (the People and their competence) and where they are working (the Organisation and its attributes). It offers the possibility for delivering the next step change in improved safety performance, as well as improving environmental, quality and business performance. Some examples of factors relating to the Work, People and Organisation that are often-cited as causes in accidents are provided below. A more complete list of these Performance Influencing Factors is available.

Work factors

  • illogical design of equipment and instruments
  • constant disturbances and interruptions
  • missing or unclear instructions
  • poorly maintained equipment
  • high workload
  • noisy and unpleasant working conditions.

People factors

  • low skill and competence levels
  • tired staff
  • bored or disheartened staff
  • individual medical problems.

Organisation factors

  • poor work planning, leading to high work pressure
  • lack of safety systems and barriers
  • inadequate responses to previous incidents
  • management based on one-way communications
  • deficient co-ordination and responsibilities
  • poor management of health and safety
  • poor health and safety culture.

Human factors is about ensuring a good ‘fit’ between people, the equipment they use, the task they carry out and the environment in which they work. Effective use of human factors will make work safer, healthier and more productive.

Isn’t it just about people ‘taking more care’?

Telling people to take more care is not the answer. While it is reasonable to expect people to pay attention and take care, relying on this is not enough to control risks. Optimising human performance involves far more than taking disciplinary action against an individual. There are a range of measures which are more effective controls including design of the job and equipment, procedures, and training. This website will provide you with practical information to help you start to manage human factors.

“Failures arising from people other than those directly involved in operational or maintenance activities are important. Managers’ and designers’ failures may lie hidden until they are triggered at some time in the future” (HSE, 1999, p.18).